Fiction Book of the Month: Tightrope
Simon Mawer's exceptionally written espionage novel has an intelligent, complex female protagonist at its double-crossing heart
Marian Sutro is the intelligent, complex, and twisted heart of this masterfully written espionage novel. She is a highly skilled Special Operations Executive, someone who in Mawer’s previous novel, The Girl who Fell From The Sky completed her mission to smuggle an atomic scientist, crucial to the Allied war effort, out of France, only for her to then be captured by the SD, the intelligence branch of the SS. She is, like all great spies, haunted, restless and as fascinating as the tangle of intrigue she finds herself embroiled within. The author’s focus on character is reminiscent of John Le Carre, but it is the protagonist’s female perspective on returning from war, and then transitioning into becoming a spy, that brings a unique, noir-esque touch to this fast-paced, spy story.
At the beginning of Tightrope, Marian has made it back to England, safely but not unscathed. In the intervening years she has suffered the ravages of torture and then internment into Ravensbruck concentration camp, from which she narrowly escaped. Much of the first part of the novel explores her PTSD, her flashbacks and inability to reacclimatise. However, it also captures the inevitable boredom that a ‘fighter’ of any kind feels on resuming ‘ordinary’ life. Mawer, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009 for his novel The Glass Room, has an extraordinarily, sharp eye for detail and is able to bring both Marian’s painful memories and her humdrum, day-to-day in 1950’s Britain vividly to life. What is fantastic, though of course troubling, about Tightrope is the way it shows that women were as damaged by the war as men and could be equally jaded by the existence to which they returned.
To say she is qualified to become a spy is certainly true, but to say Marian is eager to take on the role is inaccurate. The war has changed her, she is no longer an idealistic young girl, blinded by patriotism, right and wrong are not so clear to her now. Like her brother Ned, the physicist who makes a case for why the Soviet Union should have access to the atomic bomb too, she sees the shades of grey on both sides of the Iron Curtain - she empathises. So, when she is tasked with ‘turning’ a Russian diplomat and spy, Absolon, who works at the Soviet Embassy, it is little surprise that she ends up falling in love with him.
As Marian manoeuvres her way through the shadowy world of clandestine meetings, double agents, cleverly falsified facts and straight-up liars, she must try to keep ahead of both the British and Soviet intelligence agencies. Tense and deftly-executed, the novel keeps you guessing so that you only understand what Marion’s next move will be as it occurs to her. The question of whether her relationship with Absolon is one of sincerity or expediency drives the plot almost as much as the question of where Marion’s loyalties truly lie.
Trying to maintain your cover, and your humanity, as a spy is one kind of tightrope, but Marian Sutro is walking another kind too: she is trying to reconcile the safe, easy life she knows should satisfy her with the thrill she cannot resist. Her experiences have left a mark but they have also demonstrated her strength and her resourcefulness. The woman she has become, who now thrives in the chaotic, murky and uncertain world of espionage, is a highly readable and unpredictable heroine at the centre of a finely structured post-war thriller.